Monday, March 10, 2008

The Concept of Death and Afterlife in W.B.Yeat's "Byzantium" and "Sailing to Byzantium"

I. INTRODUCTION

Every soul shall have a taste of death. That brings us to a question of what death really is. Generally speaking, the basic concept of the process so called death is build up on the facts that this process starts when the heart stop its work to pump the blood which leads to the brain damage and the failure of the whole systems of human body. When all the system or the functions of human organs are out of work, the body itself becomes lifeless or dead.
Furthermore, according to the religious points of view, being dead, as we mention above does not mean that the journey of human soul has come to an end. On the contrary once the soul left the body, it will transform into another living form and will live until the judgment day arrives.

“When all sequence comes to an end, time comes to an end, and the soul puts on the rhythmic or spiritual or luminous body and contemplates all the events of its memory and every possible impulse in an eternal possession of itself in one single moment. That condition is alone animate, all the rest is phantasy, and from thence came all the passions, and some have held, the very heat of the body”.
(Norman, A. Jaffares. 1984, p.333)

Apart from religious definition of death above, in fact Yeats is neither orthodoxy religious nor orthodoxy scientific. He has his own science, which is an occult one, and his own religion or sophisticated lower mythology and in prose he sometimes reconciles them at the level of mystic. His tolerance in religions resulted in inconsistent and ambiguous attitude as reflected in his Byzantium and Sailing to Byzantium.

II. RELIGIOUS DOCTRINES INVOLVED
2.1 Christian Doctrine
On the matter of death, according to Christian doctrine of man, God created human souls to be immortal, but placed them in physical bodies with which they become essentially connected. At death, the soul left the body and was immediately judged. For the majority of mankind this judgment resulted in the soul’s consignment to purgatory, to expiate its sins. At the second coming of Christ, the decomposed bodies of the dead would be reconstituted and their soul would reenter them for the final judgment. The Christian doctrine of man involved the doctrine of original sin. It was taught that Adam had implicated all his descendants in his original act of disobedience to his creator. Consequently, all subsequent generation deserved of God’s wrath from the moment of birth, quite apart from the guilt the later acquired by their own actual sins. Being thus a fallen race, mankind was predisposed to evil. This meant, according to Christian theologians, that man wasn’t only unable to save himself from the state of perdition into which he was born; but he could not even desire to repent without God’s grace. This means that God provided salvation for mankind is expounded in the doctrine of the Atonement, and constitutes an essential part of the foundational teaching of Christianity. Through the atonement, those who repented of their sins and accepted Christ as their savior could hope that, after enduring the cleansing fire of purgatory, they would be reunited with their bodies, and justified at the last judgment, would pass on to the eternal bliss.
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A sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall.
Come from the holy fire, perme in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of.
My soul
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is, and got her me into the artifice of eternity.
(Sailing to Byzantium. The fourth stanza)

And W. B. Yeats seems to emphasize that it is only human body which dies but the spiritual body that is the very soul will be last forever. In his poem Sailing to Byzantium in which Yeats imagines his soul after his body’s death, as golden bird in the Emperor’s palace, singing of all times-past, present and future (forever)

..................................................................
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths
Make
of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor a wake;
or set upon a golden bought to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
of what is past, or passing, of
to come
(Sailing to Byzantium. The fourth Stanza)

2.2 Buddhism and Hinduism
On the other hand, Yeats’ reluctance to accept the orthodox Christianity is also reflected in his belief in Samsara, the cycle of life which belongs to the Hinduism doctrine. And this belief was reflected in Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium.

That is no country for old men. The young
in one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
-Those dying generations-at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
whatever is begotten, born, and dies
Caught in that sensual music all neglect.
Monuments of unaging intellect.
(Sailing to Byzantium, the first stanza)

In this stanza, Yeats described that in that country the dying generations of birds and young lovers celebrate things which are a slave to the natural cycle of birth and death. The young lovers who are in each other’s arms, the birds who are in the trees and the salman falls and the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh and fowl all sing only one song—the song of the senses. All these at the same time, are creatures who are very much subject to death.

In fact, Yeats’ belief in the after life was much influenced by the Hinduism or Buddhism. Hinduism is doctrinally tolerant and includes many different, even contradictory beliefs, but in spite of the immense regional and sectarian variations of religious, beliefs and practices, there are certain essential characteristics that are typical of the Hindu view of life. One of the most distinctive features is the belief in Samsara, the revolution of birth, death, and rebirth, understood as a cycle of transmigration from one living form into another. This belief is not found in the Vedas but it is first mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad where it is said that after death a human being may be reborn in transmigration which is closely related to a cyclical view of life and of the universe.


A straddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images than yet
Fresh images be get,
That dolphin—torn, that gong—tormented Sea
(Byzantium, the last stanza)


It is also connected with the belief in Karma, which denotes both an action and its good or bad effect. The karma is accumulated through the acts done in a previous life in a determining factor towards the condition of the present life, which in turn affects the rebirth in the next life. Such an overall balance in Karma can help explain injustices and suffering—as well as good fortune—in a person’s life. The law of Karma governs the universe and all beings within it. It acts in personally and binds each individual soul (atman) to the work and in addition to the cycle of transmigration.

Before me floats an image man of shade
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless months may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death
(Byzantium, the second stanza)

All world existence is subject to the cycle of Samsara, which is thought of as having neither beginning nor end.
In other word, The Indian view of man is certainly a sophisticated estimate. It maintains that the individual self, or atman, is really identical with Brahman, the source or principal of existence. But owing to a vidya, or ignorance, the atman believes itself to be an individual self-conscious person. In turn it takes the phenomenal world for reality, and involves itself in it. Consequently, it becomes subject to the process of time, which is manifested in unceasing cycles of creation and destruction, for the Atman or self this means Samsara, or rebirth, which is likewise a ceaseless process of dying and being reborn, with all the attendant suffering. Together with Samsara operates the law of Karma, which causes the Atman to work out in each incarnation the consequences of its actions in past incarnate lives. This process conditions the form of each of the several periods of rebirth. Thus, according to the Indian doctrine, at any given moment every living being is in the state of fortune, be it good or ill, which his past Karma has entitled. However, this situation is not hopeless and Hinduism, in its various forms, offers a way of deliverance.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths
Make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor a wake;
or set upon a golden bought to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
of what is past, or passing, or to come
(Sailing to Byzantium, the last stanza)

Basically this involves the effective apprehension of its own true nature by the man. Such apprehension implies the recognition, as the chandagya Upanisad tersely puts it, that The self of mine within the heart, this is Brahman. But the recognition is not just a mental act, it if is to be effective, it involves an effort to abstract the self from fatal attachment to existence in this world, which it has taken for reality. Such abstraction is difficult and can be achieved only by a hard discipline. When moksa salvation is finally achieved, individual existence in this world ceases, and the atman absorbed into Brahman as a drop of rain merges into the sea.
Actually reincarnation may not be universal. The intensity of a man’s faith may ultimately determine what happens to his soul in the next world.
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy cloth
May unwind the winding path;
(Byzantium, the second stanza)

III. A MIX OF HINDUISM AND CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE
To the Christian the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, is broken by Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Faith in its redemptive power not only dissolves the bonds of Satan but also releases the soul from the wheel of eternal return.
W. B. Yeats in his poem Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium, however, described his belief in reincarnation or the cycle of birth and at the same time he also reflected his belief in the purification of soul in purgatory. Thus, the writer tends to regard Yeats’ attitude towards the concept of the after life is in between the Hinduism’s doctrine and the Christians’.

At midnight on the emperor’s pavement flit.
Flames that no faggot feeds, or steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood, begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dances in hand,
An agony of trance
An agony of home that cannot singe a sleeve.
(Byzantium, the fourth stanza)

A sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall.
Come from the holy fire, perme in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of.
My soul
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is, and got her me
Into the artifice of eternity.
(Sailing to Byzantium, the third stanza)

The two stanzas describe Yeats’ symbolic opinion of the need of suffering and purification. Life is full of complexities of misery or blood. But the process of purification is an agony of trance. This idea of his is in agreement with the Christian’s doctrine.
On the other hand, Yeats clearly expresses his idea of reincarnation or the cycle of birth in the last stanza of the poem Byzantium.

A straddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the emperor!

W.B.Yeats presents the scene of Purgatory in his poem Byzantium as a place where the souls are purified by an unearthly and endless fire. And spirits from the physical world and by dreaming their former experiences expatiate for their sins. This internal fire of remorse and repentance purifies these spirits. After purgation, the souls become pure again and would be reunited with the flesh and blood and be rebirth again. And this is what he believes as the continuing cycle or reincarnation of human life.

Unlike the Christian belief that after the purgation the souls will reunited with their bodies, and justified at the last judgment, would pass on to the eternal bliss.

Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood, begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dances in hand,
An agony of trance
And agony of home that cannot singe a sleeve.
(Byzantium, the fourth stanza)

Those images than yet
Fresh images be get,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea
(Byzantium, the fourth stanza)

Thus, as a Christian, Yeats attitude towards death is a very ambiguous one. It seems that he wants to compare between his belief and Buddhism/Hinduism, in contracting moods, two-apparently quite contradictory kinds of assurance: one, that we are in fact bound, as the Buddhists tell us the great wheel of existence shall reappear upon this stage in various roles again and again:

Before me floats an image man or shade
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless months may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death
(Byzantium, the second stanza)

.....................................................
Those images than yet
Fresh images be get,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented Sea
(Byzantium, the last stanza)

The other that, as the Buddhists/Hindus also tell us, we can escape ultimately from the great wheel – not to nonbeing, a concept that never attracted Yeats, but to some kind of timeless perfection. He was not sure that he really wants to escape from the wheel. Thus, in the face of his Symbolic phantasmagoria, he retains the freedom of inconsistency. His images of a Byzantine heaven in which he would be transformed into a golden bird (the artist becoming an eternal work of art) symbolize his desire to escape from the disorder, the irony, the failure of life; but so also other symbols—as when he says he would like to live again, even in a foul ditch, as a blind man battering blind man—stand for a craving for life at any level, the lust and rage of which he speaks in his last poems, that grew stronger in him as he grew older. Often he hates life for not being perfection. Sometimes, also, he rears perfection for not being life.

IV. CONCLUSION
William B. Yeats is one of the English poets who is so interested in oriental mystical religion, especially those which are concerned with the concept of the afterlife in the form of Reincarnation. Yeats believes that after death human soul will go through relieving its earthly life and will be purified in purgatory. All the evil deeds in human soul will be cleansing so that the soul becomes good and pure again and after that the soul will be united with the body again and he rebirth to lead on earthly life. All the evil deeds and good deeds done in the previous life will done in the previous life will determine the condition of the present life, be it good or bad.
The above concept of Yeats no doubt is idealized by him from mixing up the two doctrines: Christian and Hinduism. In fact there is no incarnation in Christian doctrine of man. When a man dies he will go for spiritual journey to heaven (of course after cleansing in purgatory) as suggested by the title Sailing to Byzantium. But W. B. Yeats is so impressed and influenced by Hinduism and may be his love for earthly life so he wants to be incarnated.